E-Commerce: SAAS or Self-Hosted

There’s lots of information on the Web about how to dive in and open an e-commerce shop. But there’s not much information about what the consequences are if you follow one option rather than another. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

For the self-hosted option, I am only going to talk about WordPress and WooCommerce. There are other e-commerce solutions for WordPress (such as Ecwid, WP eCommerce, Cart 66), and there are other non-WordPress e-commerce systems (such as Magento) but the principles are the same for any self-hosted option.

A Domain Name And A Website

To run any website, including an e-commerce shop, you need an address (a domain name) and you need the software to run the e-commerce. You can do that by using ‘software as a service’ (SAAS), or you can run it self hosted. 

They each have their strongpoints and disadvantages.

Option One: Software As A Service (SAAS)

With SAAS, you pay a provider a monthly or yearly subscription to rent space on the provider’s servers using their e-commerce software.

Your subscription gives you access to whatever e-commerce features and layout and design choices the provider offers.

The SAAS provider takes care of the behind-the-scenes stuff. That includes looking after the e-commerce software; looking after the payment system so customers can pay you; looking after the server and the server software that underpins the e-commerce software; and looking after the security features shielding your shop and all the other shops on the server from getting hacked.

One of the downsides of SAAS is that if the provider doesn’t provide the feature you want, then you can’t have it.

You cannot get to the code that powers the service. It belongs to the SAAS provider. You cannot modify it or add to it. You can only take it or leave it. Of course, if the provider has thousands of customers like you then it probably has all the features you want.

Or maybe not. What if you are an edge case? What if in your particular market it is standard for all products to be sold in sixes, and to disallow a customer to buy four or five or a particular product?

If the SAAS provider doesn’t give you the ability to choose this feature, you can’t.

Examples of e-commerce SAAS providers

Shopify, Squarespace, Big Commerce, Paddle, SupaDupa, BigCartel, Create•Net, StoreEnvy, TryKong, nuMonday, and the WordPress-dot-com Business Plan.

The last time I made a list of SAAS providers was October 2017, and Highwire was on the list. Their server is down at the moment, or maybe they went out of business.

I will check again before posting this, but it highlights one of the problems with SAAS providers: What have you got left if the provider goes out of business? Answer: Nothing. 

You’ve got nothing because the provider owns the e-commerce software, and if they stop then you don’t have a shop.

Maybe I am blowing this up too much, because Shopify and Squarespace show no sign of disappearing.

Looking at the other side of the coin, what happens if you stop paying your subscription? If you stop, then your shop shuts down. You cannot take it with you because the software is the property of the provider, located on the provider’s servers.

A side note

I work on the principle that if there are any free e-commerce services out there where I can set up an additional outlet, then why not?

I had a shop on Tictail. I shut it down because I found the back end confusing and more trouble than it was worth. 

I am mentioning it because I just took a look and Tictail is now part of Shopify. For me that’s another example of danger of the ground shifting under your feet when you run your business on someone else’s system.

About Domain Names

I have heard people say that they still have the domain name and it is true. But a domain name is just an address: It is not the working shop itself.

Where You Buy Your Domain Name

If you do want your own domain name (and why wouldn’t you?) then I advise that you buy your domain name from a domain registrar and not from whichever e-commerce web host or SAAS service you sign up to.

Buying from a domain registrar is cleaner – as long as you pay the registration fee each year (typically around $15.00 a year) you can change services (SAAS or self-hosted web host) without having to negotiate the transfer of the domain name.

SAAS with an ‘export’ option

The WordPress-dot-com Business Plan is an SAAS service like Shopify or Squarespace, or Big Commerce – with one difference.

Because the e-commerce is powered by WooCommerce, you can export is to a self-hosted site if you want to do that later on.

That’s because WooCommerce, as well as being owned by Automattic, the company that owns WordPress, is available for self-hosted sites. It’s the most popular e-commerce solution by far, and the one I am really familiar with.

With the WordPress.com Business Plan you can use your own domain name, use any of their premium themes, add plugins, change the CSS, set up WooCommerce, and set up Google Analytics. It also offers unlimited storage, but I can’t see that being an issue because it would take a huge shop with many thousands of products to make storage an issue.

The WordPress.com Business Plan didn’t exist when I started, but if I was starting now I would consider it.

Option Two: A Self-Hosted Site

The advantage of a self-hosted sites are that it’s yours. You rent space on a web host, and if you want to move to a different web host you can take your shop with you. If you take regular backups, you can move at any time.

The second advantage is that because the code is yours, you can change it, add to it, and do anything you want. And if you don’t have the technical expertise to add some code then you can hire someone who can. And, there are many plugins and extensions that already exist that will enable you to do pretty much anything you want.

Setting up a site is very easy now with one-click scripts to set up WordPress, and wizards to walk you through setting up WooCommerce.

The Downsides To A Self-Hosted Site

So what are the downsides to a self-hosted site running WooCommerce?

If I was starting today, I would chose a good web host that specialises in WordPress. I would pick a plan with that host that allowed me to run a few shops.

Then I would buy a domain name to practise on, any name will do, and set up a shop. And practise. If I made a mess, I would strip all the software out and start again. Once I felt confident, I would start to build the real shop.

With practise, you can have a shop up and running in half an hour. Then you can start adding products.

And if you want to sell wholesale, there are extension to WooCommerce that enable you to do things like restrict access to approved buyers, etc.

But security is your responsibility. Download a dodgy plugin or a theme you saw on some dodgy site – and you run the risk of getting hacked.

Forget to update the themes and plugins promptly, and you run the risk of getting hacked. 

Use easily-guessed simple passwords and you run the risk of getting hacked.

It sounds worrying, but the solutions are straightforward. Stay away from dodgy stuff, keep the site up to date and protected with strong passwords, and ring fence your site with a good security plugin like WordFence.

Option Three: Headless E-Commerce

With headless e-commerce you have a site of your own (the front end or presentation layer, as it is sometimes called) but in the back end you connect to a SAAS such as Shopify. A visitor clicks on a product they want to buy and that takes them through to Shopify to complete the purchase.

That system gives you freedom to design your site without thinking about how it has to tie in with an e-commerce system built into the site. It’s still the case that if you stop paying the subscription to the e-commerce provider then you only have a nice-looking site but no way to do business on it. But you do have something that looks like a shop, and you can perhaps switch e-commerce providers.

Web Hosts

A good web host will help your site load fast; take regular backups; and make backups available so you can copy them somewhere else – on your hard drive and on something like Backblaze or AmazonAWS.

A good web host will have a good support system with people who run the business and understand their own hosting setup.

A bad web host will overstretch resources, fail to guard your site from having its resources hogged by another site on the same server, and even let in a hacker via the level above your site on the server.

One of your most important decisions is the web host you choose. To find a good host, look at the benchmark tests and the recommendations on Review Signal.

Please note those are affiliate links to the WordPress.com Business Plan